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The Pittsfield City Council wants police to wear body cameras. Here's what has to happen next

Police body camera (copy)

A Los Angeles Police officer wears an on-body camera during a demonstration in Los Angeles. The Pittsfield City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to support efforts to equip the city's police force with body cameras.

PITTSFIELD — The Pittsfield City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to back a community call to equip police officers with body cameras.

The council’s vote is largely symbolic, though.

It does not settle policy questions that Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn says have been standing between the department and body cameras. It did not appropriate funds to buy cameras or create an ordinance instructing the department on the level of privacy to afford residents when officers use the cameras.

The vote encourages Mayor Linda Tyer and Wynn to tackle funding and policy issues — and to show the depth of public support for the use of body cameras in Pittsfield.

“Where we disagree is policy issues and law issues and we’ll work those things out,” At large City Councilor Earl Persip III said.

The vote to support body cameras, Persip said, “is easy.”

“This is a slam dunk,” he said. “This should be a 10-0 vote because all of the support for this has been at the podium.”

In the weeks since Pittsfield police officers shot and killed 22-year-old Miguel Estrella, residents have called for a systemic change to policing in the city. Family, friends and a concerned community want leaders to reform policing and how the city responds to people in mental health crises.

Greater transparency and accountability in officers’ interactions with residents have been some of the loudest calls. A recent preliminary report by the police department clearing the officers who responded to Estrella’s mental health crisis, and shot the young man, intensified these calls.

“The policies and procedures are skewed and they need to be changed so that the policing works for our community,” Tonya Frazier said ahead of the vote.

Frazier, who worked with Estrella at Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity, challenged the council to meet the community’s call for change.

“It feels like the solution is being left up to the community and it shouldn’t be this way,” Frazier said. “We need action now, not after another person is wrongfully killed.”

The council voted to accept a report from the Ordinance and Rules subcommittee, which heard a petition from local attorney Rinaldo Del Gallo to equip Pittsfield police with body cameras.

Last week the subcommittee — in an unanimous vote of its own — voted to adapt the petition to say that the “City Council endorses the Pittsfield Police Dept. to obtain and implement body and dash cameras.”

“One of the reasons we voted this 4-0 [in the subcommittee] was to get it moving and to get the council to go on record that we wanted the chief to do everything possible to get this going forward,” At large Councilor Pete White said.

The council’s vote included an amendment from White that a letter be sent to the city’s legislative delegation, Attorney General Maura Healey, Gov. Charlie Baker and the state’s Law Enforcement Body Camera Task Force. The letter would highlight legal questions Wynn has said complicate the use of body cameras.

Wynn has said that while he supports body cameras and thinks they’re in the best interest of officers and the community, he’s refrained from purchasing and requiring the technology because he feels it’s in violation of the state’s wiretapping statute.

The chief has also said bringing body cameras to the department will likely require a renegotiation of labor contracts, as well as hiring staff to manage any redaction and maintenance the body camera video requires. Wynn has flagged the need for money to pay for the storage of videos.

“This is not going to be a quick fix, but it’s not going to take years,” Wynn said.

Chief Wynn Body Cameras.jpg

Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn tells At large City Councilor Karen Kalinowsky that if the city already had the funding lined up — and a body camera use policy — it would still likely be mid-summer before the cameras could make their way to the department.

The Pittsfield police chief says he supports body cameras, but has legal concerns

Councilors and residents say either way, getting a body camera on each police officer is a step in the right direction.

“There’s a lot of moving parts in this. There’s a lot of things going on, but I don’t want to delay this,” Ward 1 Councilor Ken Warren said.

Warren drafted a proposed ordinance for body camera use and another for establishing boundaries for “community surveillance” based on models created by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. Those ordinances will be discussed by the Ordinance and Rules subcommittee at its next meeting.

“We’ve got to let the administration and the public know ... we support [body cameras],” Warren said. “I support it and I want us to move forward.”

The vote Tuesday evening came near the end of a four and a half hour long meeting. The audience was smaller than the dozens of people who filled the chambers last month to show their support for requiring officers to use body cameras. But residents who remained were no less passionate.

The vote was celebrated with a round of applause from the handful of remaining residents.

Jacquelyn Sykes was among those who returned to call on the council to take up the community-backed request for body cameras. Sykes reminded the council she had been there before.

Pittsfield police shot and killed Sykes’ boyfriend, Daniel Gillis, in September 2017. Officers had been called to the couple’s home to respond to the mental health crisis Gillis was experiencing. Officers shot and killed the 36-year-old man. An investigation by the Berkshire District Attorney’s office at that time cleared the officers of wrongdoing.

In the aftermath of Gillis’ death, Sykes came before the council and related subcommittee to support the creation of the Police Advisory and Review Board. She talked about the change she hoped the board would bring to the city.

“After that passed, I stopped coming to the meetings and that was clearly a mistake,” Sykes told the council. “When the community doesn’t stay consistent, things just get brushed under the carpet.”

Sykes said she, Estrella’s family and friends and a wealth of supporters are determined things will be different this time.

“I just want you guys to put yourself in our positions and understand the community’s coming together this time. We’re not backing down and we’re gonna continue to come and put petitions forward,” Sykes said. “There are many changes that need to be made in this city and body cameras aren’t the end-all solution.”

Meg Britton-Mehlisch can be reached at mbritton@berkshireeagle.com.

or 413-496-6149.

Pittsfield Reporter

Meg Britton-Mehlisch is the Pittsfield reporter for The Berkshire Eagle. Born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, she previously worked at the Prior Lake American and its sister publications under the Southwest News Media umbrella in Savage, Minnesota.

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